Monday, September 9, 2013

Church On The Porch...


On July 21st, I gave testimony to my faith, at a budding house church in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It wasn't in my usual upbeat style of writing, it was much more raw, rough, and unpolished. In retrospect, it seemed to fit the neighborhood in which my dear friend had planted himself, to start his work, serving the under resourced. He holds a weekly service, on the porch of his home, and prepares a meal to feed them, both literally and figuratively.

It was not my intention to write about my life in this manner, but it was how the words spilled out of me, as I faced the screen. I was feeling weary, broken, and tired from the miles we logged this summer, my body ached, as I returned to seclusion repeatedly that week to write, while visiting with my family.

When Sunday evening arrived, we got a break from the oppressive heat and humidity that kept me indoors most of my visit. Still, rain threatened our outdoor gathering, and the decision was made to error on the side of caution, and move it indoors. It was no small task getting me up the stairs to the porch, and into the house. It was an older home, and the uneven, weather worn, gray wooden stairs, were too steep to traverse with a ramp, although I tried. My husband Chris, heroically carried me up the steps, onto the porch, and into the house.

I sat in a dark, wooden framed, arm chair, with burnt orange fabric, void of cushioning in it's current state, a lot like me, older and worn, but it did not lack character. Without my power chair, or table stand, we improvised and used a stack of bibles to prop up my Dynovox. Proving once again, where there is a will there is a way!

The gathering was small and eclectic, and the room was warm with acceptance. Rev. Doug opened the service in his colorful way, and there was a lovely young woman who sang while playing the guitar. Although we never spoke specifically about the content of my message prior to the service, the song and video clip played before my delivery, seemed divinely orchestrated.

Then it was my turn, arms propped up to help me sit as straight as possible, moving my head to activate the Dynavox to begin speaking and scrolling, with each movement trying to conceal the physical pain, in my neck and shoulders, my story poured out in a computerized voice, almost, as if I could separate myself from it. This was the text that followed...

Good Evening Everyone,

I'm happy to be home in NJ, with all of you tonight. Each time I visit, I regret having moved from this place, that holds such meaning...

First, I need to tell you, that I'm not a pastor, I'm not a theologian, and I did not attend seminary school, but I do have a story to tell, and I want to thank, Rev. Doug for inviting me to share my faith, with you this evening.

I would also like to start with a prayer, if you would allow me. My prayer for you, is that no matter where you are on your own faith journey, God would use me to speak into your heart. That He would give me the words to reach you, and stir something inside of you. I ask this in the name of His son Jesus, Amen.

We moved to NJ in the spring of '71, I was 8 years old, the same age, I realized, that my mom was different from the other moms. I have a vivid image in my mind, of my mom hanging onto my dad's arm, as they walked toward me, sitting on a bench, outside of our NY city apartment building. It was my birthday, and I was playing with my shiny new red transistor radio, our version, of an ipod, in my childhood. I remember the next nine years being difficult for me and my siblings, never considering at the time, how hard it was for my parents, juggling 4 children, ranging in age from 6 to 13, while my mom was battling Multiple Sclerosis.

Sitting here, with you now, at age 50, fighting my own battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, I still have trouble wrapping my head around that period of my life. I remember clearly, stealing time away from my family, to be alone with God, and pray for peace, within the chaos, of my daily life, asking God to help me get through it, and He did just that.

My mom gave up after years of suffering and frustration, and passed in '79, just prior to my 17th birthay. Regrettably, I was not at her bedside, being a typical teenager, raised on the Jersey shore, I spent that particular day on the beach. When I returned home to find out she was gone, I did not shed a tear, I remember a sense of numbness and relief. What I expected was the worst part of my life was over, what I later realized, was my childhood was over too.

I finished high school the following year, and wanting to distance myself from the years of painful memories, I moved out from under my father's restrictive hand, and began my young adult life. I first landed on Atlantic Avenue in Long Branch, sharing an apartment in a house with three other friends. Although I made one bad choice after another, God kept me safe, as I moved up, and down the coastline, enjoying the freedom of my twenties.

At 26 years old, I was brought to my knees, when suddenly, my younger brother died of what the coroner characterized, as natural causes. Seriously, natural causes, at 23 years old? How is that possible? Just, two weeks earlier, I walked in circles around the park, in an early March snow storm, praying for God to help him through his struggles. Was this, the answer to my prayers? I was angry with God, and I let him know it! Michael was hurting, and I wanted God to help him, not to take him.

The months following were more painful than grieving the loss of my mom, and there were many days, I could not contain my tears, as the world continued moving around me despite Michael's absence. It just didn't make sense, but God had already set up a community of people who surrounded me, and supported me, through the process of healing.

More than three years passed, things were beginning to normalize, my career was taking off, and I was starting to travel for work, when I got the call, and rushed home because my dad had a stroke. He passed away in the weeks shortly after. At 29 years old, three of the six members of my immediate family were gone, and yet, I still hung onto my faith, but what did that faith resemble?

That's hard to answer, I did not attend church, and it seemed the only times I stepped into one, was for a wedding or funeral. I believed in God, but, rebuked organized religion. I prayed, mostly for help and protection, and through the years I could always feel His presence.

Throughout my thirties my career continued to grow, and I spent a lot of my time travelling alone. I remember being filled with fear initially, until I realized I wasn't really alone at all. I prayed for God to be with me, and keep me safe, as I travelled to a new city each week, rented a car, got a local map, and found my way. It no longer felt scary, it was an awesome adventure, that took me on a wonderful tour, of the United States, I was grateful for the opportunity, and I always felt protected.

Jump forward to my 40's, and I was living in the suburbs of Chicago, going through a hostile divorce, with responsibility for a 15 month old baby girl from China. This child was about to teach me about God's love, like nothing else ever reached me before. Until I experienced the love I had for this tiny human, I could not begin to understand, the love our heavenly father has for us.

I had hit rock bottom, when a few short months after returning home from China, with our newly adopted daughter, my husband asked for a divorce. Turned out that we didn't have the same ideas about what family life would look like. Like clockwork God sent help in an instant! My family flew out from NJ, and stayed with me until I got my bearings. My boss, Rich granted me immeasurable grace, as I adjusted to being a single mom, and his wife, Helen, whom I had never met before, often sat with me to offer any help or guidance I needed. People came out of the woodwork to offer support and empathy.

More than one person suggested that I attend a divorce recovery program, at a church I had heard of but never explored. Having grown up Catholic, and still recovering from that experience, I was willing to try. So, with all the courage I could muster, I bravely ventured out to see what God had prepared for me, and once again found His safety net was waiting.

Willow Creek Community Church became my home, and the loving God I had always believed in, was there, waiting for me to finally find my way. That was in 2004, and now nine years later, I am still grateful to be growing in my faith, despite my circumstances. You see, this church was the place where I found help, and where I really began to learn about God. I took classes, read books, attended services, and eventually even attended leadership conferences, that reshaped my life, and my approach toward work.

I can admit today, that I was a type A, human doing, moving at a fast pace, consistently in motion, with high expectations of myself and everyone around me, leaving a wake in my path. If not for the transforming experience of my church, there is no way I could have accepted my diagnosis in 2010.

There are some who want to question why a loving God would allow them to struggle, but God never promised us, we wouldn't have troubles. We all have our challenges, mine are physical, yours may be different, but no less valid. He wants us to bring him our burdens, He wants us to lean on him in difficult times, He wants to hold us close like a parent holds a weeping child. Yet so many of us want to be in control! We think we know best, but the truth is until we surrender to His will for us, we will really never know peace!

I think about those advertisements for cars, that can go zero to 60 miles per hour in 7 seconds, and that was me, always going faster than I really needed, but this disease brought me to a screeching halt, and I had to give up control to ultimately find my purpose.

Now, my husband and I, race for a different reason, to help raise awareness, and funding for research and patient care for those suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. We are part of a support group, and we have tried to reach out and help other families struggling with this disease. I write a blog about my experience living with ALS and the many blessings that have come along with it.

Ultimately, I have a positive outlook on life. Some people choose to look at their glass as half full, and others choose to see it as half empty; I choose to see mine as overflowing, because I know that I am not in control, and I trust God to get me through this. I pray that whatever your challenges are today, you will be able to give them to God and rest peacefully in His care, knowing that He is waiting to help you.

The room was drenched in deep silence when I concluded that evening, I don't know what I was expecting; I hadn't thought that far. I only finished writing it minutes before we left for the service. Rev.Doug said silence is good, but for me, in that moment, it was difficult to know what the silence truly meant.

Looking back now, my testimony was incomplete; it was the Reader's Digest version of my story, and focused more on the lows, rather than the joy filled life I enjoyed. I was blessed to find love in Chris, one year before my symptoms started, and marry him six months before my diagnosis. A man who has honored his commitment in sickness and in health. I also neglected to mention that after 14 years of living across the street, I finally met my neighbor Laura, my caregiver, when through a series of phone calls, she came to lift me from the floor of my laundry room in early 2011, again my safety net in place before I knew I needed one.

So, my story continues to unfold with an endless cast of characters, sometimes passing through, and often playing a major role in strengthening my faith, that someone far greater than me is in control, when I remember to relinquish my will and trust in His...

It's a bit like church on the porch, stepping out of your comfort zone, planting yourself among those that need help, and seeing what God has planned for you... Thank God for people like Rev. Doug Brown for his example of courage and faith!